'Ceasefire' or 'pause'? 'Tactical,' 'humanitarian' or 'little'? Why words in the Israel-Hamas war matter

A man yells out as rescue teams search the debris of a building following an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City.
A man yells as rescue teams search the debris of a building following an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on Oct. 24. (Ali Jadallah/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Would Israel agree to a ceasefire in its war against Hamas? How about a “humanitarian pause”? What about a “tactical” pause? Or perhaps “temporary, localized pauses”?

As the conflict triggered by the deadly Hamas attack on Israel enters its second month — and civilian deaths in Gaza mount — the words being used by officials from Washington to Tel Aviv and beyond are more than mere semantics.

Netanyahu open to ‘little pauses’ but no ceasefire

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on at a press conference, with the Israeli flag in the background.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in Tel Aviv on Oct. 28. (Abir Sultan/Pool via AP)

In his first one-on-one interview since the Oct. 7 assault, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was pressed by “ABC World News Tonight” host David Muir about calls from the international community for an end — or at least a pause — to Israel’s military operation in Gaza.

“Well, there’ll be no ceasefire, general ceasefire, in Gaza without the release of our hostages,” Netanyahu said. “As far as tactical little pauses, an hour here, an hour there. We’ve had them before, I suppose, will check the circumstances in order to enable goods, humanitarian goods to come in, or our hostages, individual hostages to leave. But I don’t think there’s going to be a general ceasefire.”

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“I think it will hamper the war effort,” Netanyahu continued. “It’ll hamper our effort to get our hostages out because the only thing that works on these criminals in Hamas is the military pressure that we’re exerting.”

Israeli officials say 241 people are being held by Hamas in Gaza. If the militant group were to agree to release them, Netanyahu said, “there will be a ceasefire for that purpose.”

The monthlong conflict has killed more than 10,000 people in Gaza — including more than 4,000 children — according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. More than 1,400 people were killed in Israel during the Oct. 7 attack, according to Netanyahu’s office.

U.S. wants a pause — ‘humanitarian,’ ‘localized’ or otherwise

A massive plume of smoke rises behind concrete and brick buildings.
Smoke rises after an Israeli airstrike in the southern Gaza Strip on Monday. (Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images)

In recent days, U.S. officials have been openly critical of the humanitarian toll of Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

President Biden, who visited Tel Aviv last month to meet with Netanyahu in a show of U.S. support for Israel, has reportedly grown increasingly weary of civilian casualties in Gaza — and has publicly advocated for a “humanitarian pause.”

At a press briefing last week, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby attempted to explain what, exactly, the Biden administration hopes a “humanitarian pause” in Israel’s military operations in Gaza would look like.

“We’re really not just talking about one pause. What we’re trying to do is explore the idea of as many pauses as might be necessary to continue to get aid [in] and to continue to work to get people out safely, including hostages,” Kirby said, noting that these would be “temporary, localized pauses in the fighting to meet a certain goal or goals.”

“A temporary pause doesn’t mean a general ceasefire or the war is over,” he added. “There’s a big difference here.”

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Sanders refuses to call for a ceasefire

A Palestinian boy transports his bird, in a cage, on a bicycle past the rubble of a building.
A Palestinian boy transports his bird on a bicycle past the rubble of a building in Rafah, southern Gaza, on Monday. (Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images)

On Capitol Hill last week, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin became the first sitting senator to call for a ceasefire, but he stressed that it should come only after all the hostages being held by Hamas are released.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent progressive firebrand from Vermont, has drawn criticism from some of his fellow progressive lawmakers for refusing to call for one.

“I don’t know how you can have a ceasefire, permanent ceasefire, with an organization like Hamas, which is dedicated to turmoil and chaos and destroying the state of Israel,” Sanders said on CNN on Sunday. “And I think what the Arab countries in the region understand is that Hamas has got to go. So what we need right now, the immediate task right now, is to end the bombing, to end the horrific humanitarian disaster, to go forward with the entire world for a two-tier, two-state solution to the crisis to give the Palestinian people hope.”

“We believe a general ceasefire would benefit Hamas,” giving the militant group breathing space and time to plot additional attacks against Israel, Kirby said. Humanitarian pauses, on the other hand, would not “stop Israel from defending itself.”